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A plane that flies without fuel by riding on a ground-based laser beam has been successfully tested by scientists.
The 5ft wingspan model could lead to the development of pilotless aircraft that can stay aloft indefinitely. Such planes could provide a low-cost alternative to communication and observation satellites.
Robert Burdine, who led the tests at Nasa’s Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, said: “”This is the first time that we know of that a plane has been powered only by the energy of laser light. It really is a groundbreaking development for aviation.””
The 11-ounce balsa wood and carbon fibre model has an electric motor driven by electricity generated by panels of light-sensitive cells. During the demonstration flights, which took place inside a hangar, a laser beam was trained on the panels. After the craft was released from a launching platform, it continued to fly lap after lap until the laser was turned off. Beam-powered aircraft that can be flown without the need for fuel or batteries are thought to have enormous commercial potential.
The planes could carry scientific or communication equipment and stay in flight indefinitely. There may also be military applications. David Bushman, project manager for beamed power at Nasa’s Dryden Flight Research Centre, said: “”A telecommunications company could put transponders on an airplane and fly it over a city. The aircraft could be used for everything from relaying cellphone calls to cable television or Internet connections.””
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